What Do you Wear To A Bullfight?
I’ve been home for several weeks now and to be honest, I sort of crash landed back into my own life. I attribute this partly to the phenomenon of flying, which enables one to be on the lively coast of the Spain one night, (staying out much too late on the night before an early morning flight) and at home in our own beds the next. Which leads me to wonder: was I just dreaming? Was that tapa bar, buzzing with music and conversation after the bullfight real?
It is also my own fault for trying to pack in as much experience as possible into my last few days. On our very last night in Spain, I went to my first bullfight during the feira in Malaga, the biggest festival of the year. We were lucky to get tickets during that week, since Rivera Ordonez, the grandson of Antonio Ordonez, as well as the much loved, very young torero, Daniel Luque were both on the bill that evening. I have been trying to write about my experiences in Spain for several weeks now, especially this bullfight, but I find that even when I am speaking about it, my feelings are too big, too unordered to tell it in a logical way. When I told a librarian friend of mine that I was having trouble writing about the bullfight I had seen, she said, “Well, you were stirred in a primal way.” Without skipping a beat, another woman walked by and said, “What better way to be stirred?”
I could begin the story of Spain by telling you about the little villages where we stayed, about how blue the ocean was, the kind of color it was – an infinite blue that I’ve tried to burn into my memory forever. Cerulean, incandescent, an intense cobalt blue that connects you to the ancient Greeks, to Icarus and his spectacular flight and epic fall, to a wide golden light and the splashing plunge of water – a no-wonder-Van-Gogh blue.
Or I could write about how much I loved the plazas all across the country and the sound of goat bells ringing up and down the hills, or about the way the light is luminous in Spain in different ways throughout the day and into the evening. But before I can focus on explaining any of those things, an image flashes through my mind –a glimpse of something deeply embedded in me – a fragment of something – a red and white blur. I pause for a moment and pull it into my consciousness – is it a memory? Is it a dream? No, it’s Pamplona, and I was there last month!
You see, I am “ass over teakettle” as the British say, (which the slang dictionary defines as,“fallen in a dramatic fashion”; or, ‘in complete disarray’), and have been for a couple of weeks now. Way too many big things have happened in my life this year –
So perhaps I should back up and do this Hemingway style. I will tell you about my last evening in Spain by simply reporting to you what happened. In this deceptively simple way, perhaps I can climb out of the wild jumble of my experiences – word by word, detail by detail – and make a little bit of order out of a lot of chaos. I’ll pretend that I’m Ernest and you can pretend that you are reading the Toronto Star.
By the end of August, Spain was intensely hot. I have never experienced heat like this, bearing down on us as if the sunlight had a weight of its own. I can see how light like this can eventually crumble rocks and cathedrals, it was that hot. The heat was something that you eventually take pleasure in because it’s so remarkable, so much a part of the experience of Spain. Throughout July we had traveled up and down and back and forth in Spain and oh how I loved the plazas, the fountains, the tiled and cobbled streets, the curving mountain roads with hair pin turns and thrilling views – all of it new and old and sleepy and full of vitality all at the same time. But the way the heat came in August slowed everything down.
So back to the bullfight – I mention the heat because the sun is such a feature of the evening in my memory. I asked a few of my female friends ahead of time what one wears to a bullfight, which was really another way of saying that I really didn’t know what to expect. No one could actually answer that question, but because of the heat, we wore the lightest clothing we had. The audience seemed to be mostly older Spanish people and quite a few foreigners. The bullring was timelessly beautiful, with red railings and window arches, and a grace and pageantry that does not exist in any other arena I’ve been in.
It was our last day in Spain and we took an early bus from our little village of Maro into Malaga, a beautiful and surprising city next to the sea. We spent the day walking through the streets and along the beach telling ourselves how much we have loved this summer of our lives, marveling at the setting we were in and the people around us. We ordered our last paella for the summer, and drank the last brisk cold Spanish beer. The streets of Malaga were wrapped in ribbons and flowers, music drifted through the air, there were horses, musicians, dancing, free beer and tapas, and bullfights each evening. The streets had vitality and tiredness too, (the undercurrent of all great parties, the sense that this would end) for today was the last day of the fair and the end of the summer and our last full day in Spain.
As we got closer to the time of the bullfight, we spent a couple hours at a café near the bullring and watched what was happening around us. The café grew noisy with the happy chatter of Spanish people as the time for the bullfight drew closer; women wore long flamenco dresses, despite the heat. From our table, we could see men come and go through the back doors of the arena; we took turns walking across the street to the bullring to see if we could see anything. At one point we could smell and hear the bulls on the other side of a wall; the bulls had a familiar animal scent – which was somehow oddly touching. Finally, the day was fading, the sun was a burnt orange globe in the sky, but the heat stayed strong.
Just before 7 pm we crossed the street and entered the arena. In the umber light we watched the bullring fill with spectators, many with their own gold and red seat cushions and folding fans to help with the heat. There was a tired buzz in the air; hot tired streets and afternoon wine. From where we sat, we could see the ruins of an old fort to the left of us and new high-rise apartments to the right. A man with an Adonis Greek figure was sunbathing on his balcony, his eyes closed. He seemed nonchalant to the sounds of the bullring below, which he must hear every night. As people filled the stands in the bullring, a murmur rose around us but it was in another language, and we were too tired to distinguish it. Someone walked by selling cold beer. This was Malaga – this was Spain in a microcosm, the fiesta, the heat and the throb of a foreign language in the background, an old drama played out anew.
The band started up – a real band sitting nearby in the balcony – and their music signaled the beginning of the evening, adding a kind of pageantry as each figure, each character of the drama was introduced to the audience – the picadors, the toreadors, etc. . . Dusk came on and highlighted the color of the sand in the ring, the deep red arches around the arena, the costumes the participants were wearing, the brass horns gleaming in the band section in the evening light.
The first toreador threw his hat into the ring to see which way his luck would go and the night began. The bulls come out high-spirited, bold, and noble. They are sleek and strong and dark and beautiful and it all begins. My son liked the way the bulls were frisky before the picadors bled them. The horses are also beautiful in a different way than the bulls; graceful, fluid. The scene was riveting. We were holding our breath and looking at each other with wide eyes as the three acts unfolded before us – before we were ready, before we knew what we thought. It was beautiful, it was dangerous, and it was disturbing.
There was so much to absorb that it is hard to describe, the rich red flash of the cape, the glint of the sword in afternoon light, the deepening shadows in an ancient bullring, the hush and the murmur of hundreds of people watching life and death, graceful men in their colorful suit of lights, the magnificent bull trotting, charging and almost dancing around the men in the ring – a black swirl, a blur, a kaleidoscope of Spanish color.
The first bull did not die right away but staggered sideways for what seemed like an eternity before finally falling. (If any of you have seen Gerard Depardieu in Cyrano de Bergerac, think of the last scene in the garden before he utters “my panache –“.) Both of us were rather shocked – it was fascinating, it was beautiful, it was brutal, elemental and intense. And our adrenalin was up – way up. It remained that way all evening (and unfortunately, in our beds that night when we had hoped for some sleep).
After the bull dies, “the death squad”, as my son calls them, moves into the ring with a team of horses that drag the bull’s body out of the ring. Then a group of men sweep away the blood and rearrange the sand – the team of horses wears bells that jingle in an oddly cheerful way as they go in and out of the ring to do their job. The music stops for this and you notice how intense the heat is and the air is still except for the paper fans going back and forth in the sweltering August night.
I’m not sure either one of us knew what to expect, but after the first fight we were able to watch the second fight in a different way. I noticed how each person had a job to do and how important it was that they do it well. I noticed what the picadors do (and thought they were rather brutal).As the evening went on I saw how each bull was different and how the men in the ring learned and responded to him. I was able to pull my eyes away and watch the audience and the people around me. I understood some of what Ric Polansky explained when he described the audience as being part of what makes each bullfight new. The spectators have their own rituals and expectations as they participate in the evening in subtle and not so subtle ways. I could understand how easy it would be to write about bullfights in a romantic, cliché way or resort to technical observations, because a bullfight is not like a movie that you can easily forget, it is something you think about for a long time. I remembered the shopkeeper we met our first week in Mijas: bullfighting was cruel, he acknowledged, but “life is cruel, no?”
The young matador Daniel Luque cut an ear that night, and the crowd went crazy. White handkerchiefs went up all around the arena. A few rows behind us, a Spanish woman a little older than me was overcome with emotion during the last fight. She yelled all evening, but during Luque’s fight she shouted, Kill him good, hombre! Gradually she moved closer and closer to the railing where we sat until finally she was leaning into us, cheering on the matador, obviously moved by the events of the evening. Her passion for bullfighting was so intense that after the bullfight I asked her why she loved it so much. Es muy bonita, she said – it’s beautiful. She knew and felt deeply the traditions and rituals of bullfighting, of her own culture, the heroic ideals that played out before us in the ring that evening. The bullfights were over and the young bullfighter walked around the ring accepting accolades, flowers, and gifts. We exhaled. The crowd emptied out of the arched exits and into the streets. We walked out of the building with the woman and her husband, my son translating for us.
She led us around the bullring to show us the pens where the bulls wait before the fight and where they are butchered afterwards. It was dark now and from where we stood, we could see light coming from the room where they had taken the bulls, there was a small river of blood outside the door. We asked many questions and she was clearly delighted to talk about bullfighting and her country. She has loved bullfighting all of her life, the ceremony of it. She knew about all of the toreros past and present. She told us about their style, their glorious posture, their achievements and their travel schedule throughout the country. We stood int he street talking, strangers really, but we could not let each other go – Together, we walked to the corner, stopping at a vendor’s table where she bought several expensive portraits of the toreros she loved. Her enthusiasm was charming; but finally, we thanked her and said good night.
In the dark we walked almost twenty blocks, the streets sticky with beer. The feira was over and the tired vendors were packing up their stalls. We could no longer hear the accordion music that drifted around street corners most evenings in Malaga. The ocean was a dark puddle to our left, taxis slid quietly by on the street next to us. We were tired and wired, tomorrow morning we would be on a plane headed home. One of us would start to talk about the evening, unable to finish even the simplest thought or sentence. I know. . . the other would acknowledge in the dark. We tried to speak but it was only images that occurred to us, elemental colors and shapes.
After the bullfight we went to a tapa bar and had our last, lovely meal at a table on the street, reminding us that when words fail, there is always garlic!
We left Malaga at 11:00 at night, the streets still bright and noisy, and headed to Maro, an hour by bus. We had to be up at 5:00 am for our long flight home. During the drive, we saw the moon reflected back to us on the Mediterranean, not its usual dazzling blue, but jet black in the warm summer darkness. One of us would begin to talk about the bullfight again and then just simply sigh. The other answered, “mmmm” and we moved along in the gloom. It was beyond words.
We might say – “It was beautiful, in a strange way.” Or, “It was intense. It was very Roman.“ It fit exactly into the beauty and the glory and the history that is Spain. At 3 am we were still awake, laying without sleep in the darkness. It was the adrenalin.
Before we knew it we began a long, exhausting, blur of a day starting at 5 am with a talkative cab driver who loved bullfights. We had early morning coffee in a café. At the airport I stepped on a scale that measured me in stones. Our flights were from Malaga to New York City, New York to points west. As we met strangers on the plane and in the airports throughout the day, we told them we were coming back from a summer in Spain, that the ocean was a dazzling color of blue, that we were tired and happy, that we had seen a bullfight the night before.
And that was all we could say *